PhD(ing) During A Global Pandemic

Is academic pressure really necessary?

Being a final year PhD student amid a global pandemic was never part of my grand five-year plans! However, life happened, and I had to soldier on regardless of the circumstances. Given that this is my final insert, I thought I should reflect on what a year this has been. 

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a lot of social ills, the major one being how unequal South Africa is. These inequalities are detrimental in the educational sphere; this was evident at our basic education level in various ways. 

Exhibit A: The ‘privileged’ community was waging for learners to return to schools because schools were safe enough for students to continue learning. However, in rural schools, where a vast majority of schools still have pit latrines, returning to school would have had catastrophic results.

The social divide was also apparent in higher education. The historically advantaged universities were able to develop online platforms and swiftly crossover to online learning while the historically disadvantaged universities struggled to adapt to the unforeseen changes. The challenges in adapting to online learning and data availability did not only impact undergrad students but caused major hiccups to postgraduate students’ research. I will briefly share how I was affected and also share the experiences of my friend Lerato Sokhulu, a second-year UKZN PhD student in Education.

The lockdown period came as a shock to everyone; as a final year student, my anxiety levels were extremely high. The enforced regulations meant that I could only work from home. Fortunately for me, my research is mainly based on supercomputers which I could still access from home. However, the internet connection at home is much slower and sharing my work environment with nine other people was not easy. It took a while for me to adapt, and this inevitably delayed my progress. The most challenging period was when my mother fell ill, as the oldest sibling, I had to look after her until she had fully recovered. Again, my research progress was stalled. Given all the challenges I faced, I was stunned when I found out that the academic calendar was only extended for undergraduate students. All submission deadlines for postgrads remained the same!

Mine was not a single story; Lerato also shared how this period impacted her research. For her project, she had to conduct multiple interviews with individuals and focus groups. When the lockdown started, she had only just begun interviewing a few individuals, the implementation of the lockdown rules meant she could no longer conduct interviews face to face. She had to change her entire methodology and move to digital platforms. Another hurdle she faced was working from home. The university environment provided constant internet connection which is vital for her studies; such luxuries were not immediately available when she moved home. The transition was not easy.

I have heard similar stories from colleagues and even students from other universities. What is mind-boggling is how the university officials saw it fitting that the submission deadlines remained; this highlighted how university bureaucracy prevents student involvement when decisions directly affecting students need to be made. Top-level management is often completely out of touch with student realities and fails to create platforms that will bridge this gap. 

By not extending the submission deadline were they implying that postgrad students were immune to the difficulties that resulted in the extension of the undergrad calendar? Were there any student supervisors present when this decision was made? Was there a student representative present? To me, this decision just highlighted how universities could create unnecessarily toxic environments for postgrad students. These toxic environments evidently drive students away from academia. I am set to complete my PhD in time, but keeping up with the tight deadlines resulted in me neglecting my mental and physical health. I am not disregarding the fact that a PhD should be challenging; it is the highest level academic qualification and should be demanding. However, some of the academic pressures result in more harm than good.

I know that to some I might sound like a broken record whenever I mention these issues; however, I genuinely believe that once the systems are changed students from all walks of life will thrive in academia. A positive highlight was when the university provided online counselling sessions for students and introduced online support groups; this was a step in the right direction. It is these kinds of actions that will ensure that the academic space becomes genuinely transformed.

As unexpectantly gruesome as this year was, what was beautiful to see is the resilience of the human spirit. Although the systems of this world divide us in so many ways, our hearts always resonate with how the human spirit triumphs even when faced with death.  Since this blog is my last piece, I saw it fitting that I leave you with a piece of me: 

We are the Universe

As black hole minds pull us to a place of no escape

May our thoughts lead us to the remembrance of the beauty of co-existence

That without the dust, even the brightest star could never come to life

Let the collision of our souls ignite Milky smiles.

Even when the dark energy of alien thoughts tries to pull us are apart,

We will gravitate to the truth of common origin.

When we look up at the diamonds that brighten the night sky

May we remember; their magic is engraved in our DNA.

Conferencing Toolkit for Postgrads

Are you ready to conquer your fears?

Covid-19 robbed me of my most favourite part of postgrad life: Conferencing. The lockdown regulations came with strict restrictions on all local and international travel; this meant that for the first time in a very long time, I was not going to attend any local or international conference. All I could do is reminisce of the good all times when I was booked into fancy hotels and fed all in the name of conferencing! Jokes aside, attending conferences has been one of the key aspects that shaped my career outlook and my perception of academia on a global scale. 

At my first conference, it felt like I was thrown in the deep end and left to drown. It was intimidating! But with the right mindset and preparations, I am now a conference wizard (yes I’m blowing my own horn). In this blog, I will share useful tips on how to gain the most from attending conferences.


Step 0 of the pre-travel preparations is choosing a conference that is relevant to your field, and that will positively impact your research. To gain maximum impact from the conference, presenting your research findings is highly recommended. The conference organisers select presenters based on an abstract submitted during registration, so the abstract has to standout if one wishes to present. These are the key ingredients for a brilliant abstract: Give motivation on why your research is relevant to the field. Highlight the methodologies you used. Emphasise the results you obtained. Then, outline what you have concluded from your study.

If you have a poster presentation, it is best to print your poster before travelling. For oral presentations, one can always neaten up the presentation during the conference. However, knowing your audience in advance will help you structure your presentation so that it speaks to the audience (e.g. if the audience is well informed about your topic then you won’t spend a lot of time on the introduction). Finally, prepare a two-minute elevator pitch which is a summary that highlights the importance of your research; this comes in handy for the brief coffee break encounters.

Many conferences offer travelling or registration funding for students, be sure to apply early. Once you are registered, keep check of the list of attendees and invited speakers. Knowing your attendees is advantageous because you can have a strategy for your networking engagements and you might find a student from your country or is also attending and hence might be a potential conference buddy. Brief research on the invited speakers will help with planning which sessions to attend if the conference has plenary sessions and who to approach during the breaks.


Sharing basic logistic information might sound tedious for frequent travellers, but my first international conference was my first international travel experience, and there are a few things I wish I knew before boarding the plane. Different international border gates require various documents upon arrival, ensure that all these documents are printed (Invitation letter, hotel reservation, a letter from your institution, etc.). It is always a good idea to have some cash with you, if you plan to change currencies at the airport they will require proof of residence so carry that with you. A student’s life is dependent on having a functioning laptop so when travelling note that various countries have different charging ports and adaptors be sure to pack the correct charger/adaptor (I’ve learnt this the hard way). Always check if the conference provides transfer from the airport, if not book a cab in advance. Lastly, download or save a map in your phone that you will be able to use even without data so that you don’t get lost.


As much as there is pressure to be seen and heard, always relax and be yourself. Conferences are the best places to find potential collaborators and supervisors, so all the preparation is worth doing. The elevator pitch will be essential on the first day of the conference as everyone is getting to know each other. The following days should be used for networking and putting your research out there. Don’t be intimidated in the coffee and lunch breaks. Speak to people and initiate discussions; not all conversations have to be based on your research interests. Be open with everyone and don’t shy away from making (appropriate) jokes or hopping onto discussions you are passionate about. You also have the chance to meet researchers that you have been referencing in your papers. It is not always about telling them about your current article, maybe just introducing yourself and make a comment that they will remember you when you send them an email afterwards.

In preparation for your presentation day, ensure that you have an early night, wear comfortable clothes and thoroughly go over your slides/ poster (try to prepare for possible questions). For oral presentations, check your slides at the presentation venue to see if they are clear and compatible with the venue systems.

Unfortunately, not all people attending conferences have pure intentions, be alert, and if you plan on going out, it is advisable to always have a trusted companion with you. Some attendees (young and old) can behave most inappropriately, don’t be afraid to speak out and report to the relevant committees.Most importantly, have fun! Conferences are a working visit, but they also offer cultural experiences which are first time experiences for many students. For me, each conference has always resulted in friendships that lasted far beyond the academic encounters. Once the conference craze is over, and you are back at work, you should follow up with the people you met at the conference to further cement your engagements and start collaborations.

Preparing For A Virtual Conference

The advise I shared will come in handy when things return to ‘normal’; however, for now, we are stuck with virtual conferences. Although virtual conferences may seem less demanding, one still needs to prepare. Most of the pre-travel preparations I above mentioned still apply; however, the logistics and networking differs slightly for the virtual conference.Before the conference starts, go through all the conference material and ensure that you have successfully downloaded the platform that will be used for the conference. Familiarise yourself with the different functionalities within the platform (e.g. How to raise your hand, how to join breakaway rooms, etc. ). You then need to prepare a suitable work environment that will enable you to fully participate at the conference with minimal disturbances. Ensure that your workstation has relatively reliable internet connection! For networking, don’t be afraid to reach out to participants (through individual chat boxes or emails), engage during breakaway sessions, and spark conversations always ask questions to presenters or panel members.